Child, children, kung fu, martial arts, mixed martial arts, self defense

How Old Does a Child Need to Be to Learn Martial Arts?

Many of you have seen what I call the American Dojo (schools), with little children in their karate uniforms marching in and out of a fancy looking classroom.  These schools emphasize discipline through a pre-designed program taught in order, for completing levels of the program (much like an adult’s seminar or workshop for work and the certificate of participation or training provided thereafter the event – only these programs take longer and cost more money).  While some have found exactly what they were looking for in these programs, others have left with a pill-taste in their mouth.

“When I went to that school and saw how they weren’t correcting those kids, I was upset.  I had taken …. In Korea, and I knew that the kids weren’t learning anything….  Then it came time for them to tell me the cost, and I got more upset.  They wanted $400.00 for my two kids each month, on contract!  I asked them why they thought I’d pay that when they weren’t correcting the kids, and the Sensei’s wife stood up and shouted at me, ‘And, what belt do you hold to be criticizing us?’  I left, and went to ….

We’ll get to that in a moment.  But, before I do, allow me to give parents some direction on choosing a school (in Chinese: kwoon) for their kids:
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1.)  Know what your goals are for your kids, both short and long term.
2.)  Interview each school to see if they will meet those goals.
3.)  Make sure there is a way out if they don’t deliver on their promises; don’t get financially tied to a marketing-scheme (-scam, whatever you want to call it).
4.)  Be involved in your kid’s education, and when available do it with them.  (This not only empowers your child, it builds parent-child relationships.)
5.)  Avoid programs that teach by the book, as these don’t provide individualized attention and correction for mastering the system.

“How old does a child have to be before he can start training in a martial art?”

There are two questions to consider when answering this question.  And, this is a decision you and the Sifu (teacher) of the school needs to make.
1.) Is the child physically ready to train?

2.) Is the child mentally/emotionally ready to train?

Let’s look at each one of these individually, starting with the physical:

It takes a very sensitive teacher (i.e., instructor) to recognize students who are or are not ready; and, it takes tact and diplomacy to explain “why” to those children who are not ready.  Let’s look at an example:
The stretching and flexibility exercises, common to all martial arts, are very good for young children.  When they are taught and performed properly, after an appropriate pre-stretching warm-up, these exercises can help the child develop skills they will need to, later, learn tactical fighting (i.e., self-defense).  But, other exercises can be harmful.  For example, the knuckle-push-ups, common to some martial arts, creates pressure on newly formed and still growing bones, causing permanent damage or disfiguration.  Under the age of 16, the growth portions of the bones, the epiphysis, are still not mature, and damage can impair growth.

Children must be handled with care.  This means the type of training a child requires is different from teenagers and adults, and patience is required for the development of the child to allow for advanced training in the martial arts.  A good instructor will know how to help the child learn to develop and use their bodies to later self-defense exercises when they are ready, and the instructor will understand when the child is ready for such exercises.

Now, let’s look at the question of mental and emotional readiness.  This is important; after all, we are talking about them learning a tactical fighting system (i.e., self-defense system).  Irresponsible handling of such ability may lead to negative consequences for the child and those around the child.

The kinds of situations children encounter are different than an adult’s.  There’s more physical intimidation, and there are times when fighting is necessary.  The lack of action can lead to emotional and mental sufferings, individually and socially.  No child should have to absorb physical and mental abuse when self-defense is justified and possible.  To try to explain to a child “fighting is the last resort” is too complex for a young child to understand.  Heck, it’s hard for some adults to understand!  Learning to teach a child to responsibly handle their abilities takes time, and proper training is necessary to help the child emotionally, mentally and physically deal with those things going on in his or her life, justifiably, efficiently and effectively.


One thing to avoid is pressure-sports.  What do I mean?  Many schools force children into tournaments at a young age (e.g., peewee and junior sparring competitions).  Competition turns the martial art into a sport.  In these sports, the participants aren’t concerned with safety and well-being – rather they are concerned with beating their opponent -, and they aren’t concerned with respect and self-discipline.  It is win at all costs, and the cost, often, is their humble ability to learn and mature without injury to their bodies, minds and/or emotional disposition.

True martial arts are not sports.  The contradiction may be hard to many adults to understand, much less the children.  In the school, they are taught that sparring is a dual practice; that they are to individually do their best so the other person can learn and do their best and vice versa.  And, there’s respect – of talent, of self-weakness (for self-improvement), the martial art they’re learning, and much more.  In a sporting event only the winners benefit, and arrogance is encouraged (to advance in the sport).  This is a contradiction most children cannot understand.

In Conclusion:

There are advantages and disadvantages to children learning a martial art.  It all depends on the child, their goals, the environment they’ll be learning, and the instructor’s ability to teach the child.  While it is true that coordination, balance, strength, speed, confidence, respect and discipline are positive possibilities, the school has to be such that the child has a chance to learn it – from where they are, not from a book or program.  This is why there is no one answer, between various schools, as to what age is appropriate for children to learn a martial art.  Instructors’ abilities vary as do the children that come into their school.

Empower yourself to life!™

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©2018 Yost Wing Chun Academy. All Rights Reserved.

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